Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


24. Amitim, a program sponsored by the Atlanta Jewish Federation, has stationed two young women volunteers in Lviv, one from the United States and the other from Israel.20 The two young women, whose principal engagement is with local Jewish youth, work closely with the Jewish Agency and with Rabbi and Mrs. Bold. Their term in Lviv covers the major Jewish holidays, commencing before Rosh Hashanah and ending after Pesach. The program concludes in Israel for Yom Haatzmaut. The two emissaries appeared quite satisfied with their venture and their relationship with the different Jewish organizations in the city seemed very positive.



25. Chernovtsy is a city near the Moldovian border with a population of almost one million people. Founded by Germans as Czernowitz, it was under Austrian rule between 1775 and 1918, became Romanian in 1918, and was ceded to the USSR in 1940. Its architecture reflects its Central European history.

Approximately 50,000 Jews lived in Chernovtsy in 1941, a large and important segment of the population. Survivors poured into Chernovtsy after World War II, increasing its Jewish population to 70,000, but Jewish emigration has been substantial since the late 1960s, leaving the city with fewer than 4,000 Jews today.

Military and textile industries formed the economic base of Chernovtsy during the Soviet period. All factories in the city have closed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving an unemployment rate exceeding 95 percent. Some people have found work in street bazaars, buying cheap merchandise in Poland and selling it in local markets. Residents report that local youth are disinclined to attend university, perceiving no benefit from further education.

26. Olga P. Ratai is Director of Chernovtsy Jewish School #41, which was established in 1991 soon after Ukrainian independence. The school covers grades one through eleven, enrolling 345 pupils in autumn 1997 and 240 in April 1998. Emigration accounted for the loss of over 100 pupils during the school year, most to Israel with their families. Ms. Ratai said that perhaps 60 percent of all Jewish children in the city are enrolled in the school, but that as many as 30 percent of the pupils have no Jewish ancestry at all. The school is perceived as a fine academic institution with a warm, friendly atmosphere. It serves hot meals every day and distributes clothing and other humanitarian aid three or four times each year.

Prior to its establishment as a Jewish school, the building was a teachers' college. It is located in the center of town close to several trolleybus lines, thereby eliminating the need for the school to operate a bus service. It appears to be in good condition.

The school is sponsored by Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Russian outreach department of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, the seminary of the Conservative (Masorti) movement in Israel. The Schechter Institute provides some funding for the school as does the Israeli government and a municipal cultural fund. All of the pupils attend a two-week summer camp in the Carpathian mountains that is operated by the Schechter Institute.

The Judaic curriculum, which is supposed to resemble that of the Tali schools in Israel, includes three hours of Hebrew instruction each week, two hours of Jewish tradition, and two hours of Jewish history. Because it is a secular school, the program of the school includes no prayer.

The working language of the school is changing from Russian to Ukrainian over time. The school has nine 286 computers connected by network to a Pentium 120 with a CD-ROM drive. The Judaic studies teacher was very pleased with Jewish educational software that was brought to the school as a gift.

A Sunday school enrolling 30 children between the ages of three and 14 meets at the day school.

27. A Jewish preschool enrolls 20 children between the ages of three and seven. It meets in a preschool building that enrolls about 100 children in all, divided among six different programs.

Legally, the Jewish preschool is sponsored by the Jewish Information Center, formerly the Israel Information and Cultural Center (see below). However, the Jewish Information Center provides minimal funding. The school requires a tuition fee of $10 each month, which precludes a larger enrollment. However, few families with children in the school pay on a regular basis. The teachers, who should receive monthly salaries of $40, are paid infrequently.

Teachers explained that almost all of the few toys in the school had been donated by families whose children outgrew them. The Jewish Agency office in the city provides some crayons. The quality of meals in the school is poor because the administration cannot afford to purchase nutritious food. The problems of a preschool in a weak economy had been compounded by an ongoing illness of the director of the overall facility, which thus lacked a sense of direction as well as an advocate.

The children presented a brief program of Israeli songs and dances. Although children raised in the (former) Soviet Union often display very strong affection for caregivers, the youngsters in this program appeared to cling to their teachers with exceptional tenacity.

28. Klava Shlyakovskaya, a well-organized and energetic local woman, directs the Jewish Agency office in Chernovtsy.21 Tanya Pidgirnyak, another local woman, is her assistant. Ms. Shlyakovskaya said that 360 people from the Chernovtsy area emigrated to Israel in 1997, not including young people in Naaleh or other special programs. She expects aliyah to continue at the same rate or even increase in 1998. In fact, 47 left for Israel in March alone. Most olim have relatives in Israel, she said. About 100 people go to Germany each year and perhaps 20 to 25 emigrate to the United States.

Ms. Shlyakovskaya estimated that about 3,000 Jews remain in the city. However, some do not know they are Jewish, and some Jews have problems proving Jewish heritage because essential documents had been altered to facilitate denial of Jewish ethnicity.22 She predicted that all younger Jews would leave the city within the next five years. People over 50 years of age would remain as it is too difficult for them to adjust to new lives in a different culture and economic system.

JAFI operates an ulpan, which meets in the Jewish day school and at several other locations in the city. It also sponsors several clubs for potential olim, and helps local Jewish children attend a JAFI camp near Lviv. Naaleh, Sela, and other programs in Israel for youth and young adults are very popular, said Ms. Shlyakovskaya.

Ms. Shlyakovskaya has two adult sons who live in Ashdod and a mother who lives in Beersheva. She will go to Israel herself as soon as she is able to sell her apartment; she hopes to sell it within a year, but it is a two-room apartment worth $50,000 and few people in Chernovtsy can afford to buy an apartment at that price. Similarly, Ms. Pidgirnyak has two young adult children in Israel and is trying to sell two family-owned apartments, each of which she priced at $25,000, so that she can join them. Asked if there were any wealthy Jews in Chernovtsy, Ms. Pidgirnyak responded, "No. If people are wealthy, they are killed."

29. Nativ, formerly known as the Lishkat Hakesher, operated an Israeli Information and Culture Center in the city. However, budgetary constraints forced Nativ to terminate its sponsorship. The office now operates as the Jewish Information Center; it receives some financial support from Maagen Avot, a welfare fund operated in small Jewish population centers by the Ukrainian Vaad and JDC.

The organization retains the Russian-language library provided by JDC. It provides some support to a youth club, the Sunday school, and the Jewish preschool. It operates from a single disorderly room, crowded with bookcases, desks, non-operating computers, and stacks of newspapers.

30. One synagogue remains open in the city. The chairman of the religious society that governs the synagogue presented a business card describing himself as a rabbi, but he is a local person with no rabbinic training. Two young American Chabad yeshiva students were in the synagogue a few days before Pesach, preparing to lead seders in Chernovtsy and the surrounding area. A group of older men were chopping firewood in the synagogue courtyard. The synagogue has a handsome painted ceiling.

31. A large Jewish cemetery, overgrown with weeds taller than some of the tombstones, is located in an outlying district of the city. Reflecting the history of the area, many monuments bear prewar inscriptions in German and Hebrew. Postwar markers carry inscriptions only in Russian, some also showing ceramic likenesses of the deceased in Russian Orthodox fashion.


32. With a population of 1,046,400 in 1994, Odessa is the fifth largest city in Ukraine. A large port on the Black Sea, it is the dominant city in the southern part of the country. Odessa was the second largest Jewish population center in all of Russia between 1880 and the 1920s, surpassed only by Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which then was within tsarist Russia. Odessa Jewry of that era played an important role in local and regional commercial activity. Local Jews were also known for their secular character, commitment to Jewish community institutional development, and intense political involvement. Odessa became an important center of Zionism and Hebrew literacy.

Approximately 180,000 Jews, then about one-third of the total city population, lived in Odessa, before World War II. About 100,000 were killed in the Shoah, the majority by Romanian troops. A large number managed to escape, many by sea, during the long the long siege of the city that preceded its occupation.

20. Two American Jews and two Israelis are also posted in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine.
21. Local residents often represent Sochnut in smaller Jewish population centers, particularly in those cities isolated from other concentrations of Jews.
22. A young man with Russian documentation, although the son of a Hungarian father and a Jewish mother, had appeared at the Jewish Agency office earlier that day, inquiring about the possibility that he might be Jewish and, therefore, eligible for Israeli citizenship. Informed that he is Jewish and entitled to Israeli citizenship, the young man was delighted and said that he would return later to begin processing his aliyah.

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